In humans, we think of food poisoning as being the ingestion of food that is contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites or the toxins from these agents, which, in turn, make us sick.
The most common signs of food poisoning in people are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever and abdominal pain—all starting within a few hours of eating the offending item.
Certainly anyone who has owned a dog has probably experienced the “joy” of some of these symptoms when their dog eats something he shouldn’t have. So, if our dogs are experiencing similar symptoms, it must be food poisoning as well, right?
Can Dogs Get Food Poisoning?
Well, the straightforward answer to this very simple question is yes … and also no.
Food poisoning in dogs is a bit of a more nuanced issue. More often than not, it isn’t a true case of food poisoning, but rather an inappropriate food that’s not sitting as well as it could or should.
Veterinarians affectionately refer to this condition as “garbage gut,” since dogs are so prone to enjoying forbidden treasures.
But there are still several items that can cause true food poisoning in dogs.
True Causes of Food Poisoning in Dogs
We need to be cognizant of what our furry family members have access to around the home or when they’re outside.
Here are a few things that can actually cause food poisoning in dogs:
Garbage and Compost
Our dogs might consider garbage to be a canine delicacy, but these contaminated items should be off-limits for our furry family members. Any rotten or moldy foods can cause food poisoning in dogs.
For this reason, you also need to make sure that your kitchen compost pail and outdoor compost pile are inaccessible to pets. I once treated a dog that ended up passing away after he raided the neighbor’s compost pile.
Garbage can also contain bacteria that can lead to more serious illnesses.
You will want to make sure that your dog cannot get ahold of dead or decaying items found in the woods or on the side of the road.
These items can carry some serious bacteria or parasites that can cause tummy upset and, in some cases, very serious illnesses.
Fecal matter of any variety (which seems to be SO tempting to so many dogs) can cause some serious stomach upset.
Recalled Dog Food or Treats
You should also keep an eye out for recalled dog foods or treats, which can cause your pup to get sick. You can check the petMD pet food recall list or the FDA website for listings on pet food recalls.
Although it is a recent diet fad, raw/undercooked meat, eggs and bones can cause significant illness if not handled properly. In addition to being able to cause food poisoning, bones can also potentially create foreign bodies that require surgical removal.
Symptoms of Food Poisoning in Dogs
Generally, the symptoms of food poisoning in dogs include some combination of vomiting, diarrhea, reduced appetite, lethargy and dehydration. Some animals may show some neurological signs such as a lack of coordination, tremors and, in severe cases, even seizures and collapse.
Depending on what your dog ate, how much and how sensitive they are, the signs and severity may vary. Probably the most common symptoms of food poisoning in dogs tend to be vomiting and diarrhea.
What Can You Do for Food Poisoning in Dogs?
As a rule, try fasting your dog for 24 hours when they start vomiting—offer water, but no food.
If they continue to vomit during that period of time, they need to have a veterinary exam. If the dog doesn’t vomit in those 24 hours, but then begins to vomit again after the 24-hour fast, they need to see a veterinarian.
If at any time your dog starts vomiting water, seems miserable or shows any neurologic signs at all, take them to an emergency clinic or your veterinarian immediately.
It is always safer to have your pet checked out by a vet. Treatment is simpler, more effective, and likely, less expensive when done early. Plus, we can save your pup a lot of tummy grumbles.
Food Poisoning vs. Food Toxicity
Sometimes, what you think are symptoms of food poisoning in dogs may actually be signs of food toxicity.
Human Foods That Are Toxic for Dogs
There are many human foods that can cause gastrointestinal upset in dogs without actually being food poisoning.
Some human foods can even cause serious health complications, which is why it is always best to discuss your dog’s diet with your veterinarian.
Items that cause food toxicity in dogs include:
Salt and salty snack foods
Xylitol (often found in sugar-free gums and candies)
Cat food (very high in fat)
Some of these may be safe in small amounts, while others can prove deadly in tiny amounts. Make sure you keep these items, and all human foods, safely stored where dogs cannot access them.
Table Scraps and Sidewalk Snacks
Additionally, some dogs are more sensitive than others, so what is a small amount of human food for one dog may be enough to make another dog sick.
Pay attention on your walks to make sure that your pup doesn’t get ahold of things like pizza remnants that spilled out of a trash can or other types of sidewalk snacks.
Some people also like to share table scraps with their dogs, but for the dogs, those scraps are frequently more fatty than is healthy for the average canine.
For dogs that are sensitive to fat, even a small snack (whether given as a table scrap or picked up on a walk) such as a wedge of cheese, hotdog or piece of chicken skin is enough to cause inflammation of the pancreas (an organ that secretes digestive enzymes in dogs). This can lead to a severe bout of pancreatitis with vomiting or diarrhea.
Although the symptoms of pancreatitis may be similar to food poisoning in dogs, it is often much more severe, and can even be fatal.
Overall, it is safest to ignore those begging eyes and paws and stick to a healthy bowl of kibble. If you would like to introduce some new foods to your pup’s diet, always check with your veterinarian first!
Tips for Preventing “Garbage Gut” in Dogs
Put away anything that isn’t safe, lock up the trash and don’t leave foods out on the counter that your dog may try to grab. You should also let guests know not to feed your dog table scraps or other human foods.
Check your yard regularly to be sure there aren’t any potentially hazardous snacks there. If you are headed to an area that you can’t scout for risks, keep your dog on a leash. This will help you to control what you dog has access to and help prevent potential problems.
Always use a leash when you walk your dog to make sure they can’t find forbidden snacks along the way. Ideally, you can also teach your dog to “drop it” in case they do get ahold of something toxic.
Some dogs have bombproof tummies—my Lab once ate a jar of baby food (jar, lid, baby food and all!). Other animals just look at something they shouldn’t eat and are sick—my Cocker Spaniel could ONLY eat a certain prescription dog food for most of her life without getting ill.
Knowing your pet and which food(s) they may be exposed to will go a long way in preventing foodborne illnesses!
By: Dr. Sandra Mitchell, DVM
Featured Image: iStock.com/alvarez